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Natural Disasters:EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT NEEDED,by Dhurjati Mukherjee,31 August 2005 Print E-mail


NEW DELHI, 31 August 2005

Natural Disasters


By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Disaster management may have been a subject of much academic interest. But really when disasters occur, the experience is indeed horrifying. The Orissa super-cyclone of 1999 and the earthquake of Bhuj in 2001 was expected to have served as wake-up calls for India to augment its disaster management plans. But the recent massive floods in Mumbai once again reveal the helplessness of the State authorities in tackling such disasters.

Unplanned and wanton urban growth, high population density as also climatic factors and terrain conditions make the country vulnerable to various types of natural disasters. Experts have estimated that around 60 per cent of the country’s landmass is prone to earthquakes while 40 million hectares are susceptible to floods. Cyclones pose a threat to millions of people living along the coastline as their habitations are within walking distance of the sea.

The core of the flood problem lies in the Indo-Gangetic basin, which contains 60 per cent of the total flood-prone area and contributes 33 per cent of the total run-off. This area also contains around 40 per cent of India’s total population. The other major flood-prone area is the Brahmaputra Valley in the North-Eastern part. Moreover, the cropped area affected annually is about 3.5 million hectares and was as high as 10 million hectares in 1988, possibly the worst year. On an average, as many as 1529 lives are lost every year due to floods. The total loss on account of flood damages to crops, houses and public utility was estimated to be of the order of Rs 52,659 crore during the period 1953-1998.

As per Government records, during the 1990-2000 decade disasters in the country killed at least 40,000 people and affected another 300 million. The Orissa super-cyclone killed 10,000 people and the Bhuj earthquake claimed 13,800 lives, both of which exposed the country’s incapability in coping with disasters of such nature.

The experience of these disasters as also the tsunami havoc have put pressure on both the Central and State Governments to do something in this regard. Floods have become an annual feature. Last year the floods in Assam and North-East and this year in Gujarat and Mumbai bear testimony to its recurrence almost every year. Mumbai witnessed an unprecedented 900 mm rainfall in recent decades which possibly no city administration can tackle. In 1978, 378 mm rainfall submerged entire Kolkata, bringing it to a halt for almost three days.

In a report presented by the Union Home Ministry last year it was suggested to create a cadre of trained experts to make up a National Disaster Response Force. Some 144 special rescue teams, each with 45 members, will be stationed in disasters-prone zones in India by December 2006. Moreover, it proposed an earthquake mitigation project and a 169-district disaster risk management programme.

As a long-term strategy for resource utilization and hazard management, a judicious mix of structural and non-structural measures with a greater emphasis on the latter should form the core of the flood moderation strategy.

Among the structural measures is obviously the construction of dams but not very large ones as is being argued by a section of experts. One is, however, reminded of a significant observation of Prof. D.D. Kosambi who pointed out in 1985: “Neither the engineers nor the (Planning) Commission would consider a more important suggestion namely, that many cheap small dams should be located and built from local materials with local labour. Monsoon water would be used and two or three crops raised annually on good soil that now yields only one”

Among the non-structural measures, the emphasis should be on watershed management and massive tree planting in the upper catchments of the rivers originating from the hills. Efficient management of flood plains, flood proofing including disaster preparedness and flood forecasting and warning should be the other measures to be given priority. Coordination with the basin countries would also go a long way in controlling floods. What is most important, however, is the political will as also a multi-disciplinary approach that covers not only technology but also social, economic and environment consideration in evolving a pragmatic strategy in countering floods.

As is well known, the entire East Coast of India, the Gujarat coast along with the West Coast and the islands of Lakshadeep and Andaman and Nicobar face frequent cyclonic conditions (and also floods) which sometimes cause large-scale destruction to life and property. While it is agreed that human interference could do little to control such events, precautionary measures such as proper coastal area planning for locating coastal communities in safer areas, protecting and propagating the natural protecting systems such as mangroves, coral reefs, shelter belt plantations etc. along with installation of early warning system, timely evacuation and relief measures could go a long way in minimising loss of life and property.

It is significant here to refer to the recent M.S. Swaminathan Committee report on review of coastal management which has studied the need to tackle natural disasters like floods and tsunami. It has laid emphasis on demarcation of vulnerability line all along the coastal areas and has suggested development activities to be regulated on the seaward side of the vulnerability area. Developing bio-shields all along the coastal areas by intensive plantation of mangroves, casuarinas, etc. is expected to have the desired effect in controlling floods and/or cyclones. The Committee has suggested a National Sustainable Coastal Zone Management Institute along with organizational structure to address various issues and to creating public awareness to deal with the problems of these areas effectively.

While the cost of coping with disasters is expected to run into several thousand crores of rupees, there are various other obstacles which may affect disaster management plans. The level of preparedness, the ability to comprehend and take prompt action, the efficiency and capability of the district or block level officials and/or peoples’ representatives are all issues that need to be discussed and assessed.

The latest decision to set up a national disaster management authority with the Prime Minister as Chairman has not yet fructified. However, the Central Government has circulated a model for disaster management to all States. The National Institute of Disaster Management, New Delhi, is involved in research, analysis and training of personnel. Things are no doubt moving, but the pace appears to be rather slow. However, some sincere action is called for at this juncture, not just through planning but effective implementation at the grass-root level. – INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)










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